III

Fog once again covered the sight of land. Their ships had anchored near the beach, Sigrid, her father, Ragnar and the other raiders withdrew their weapons and shields. They were prepared for any attack as they stealthily entered territory completely unfamiliar to them. Perhaps not to Ragnar, since he'd been to England before – for Sigrid it was much different to her than Norge. Even the weather was different…here it was damper and slightly warmer weather.

'So, Sigrid, how do you like this land?' Ragnar asked once they had made camp.

'It is fine I suppose but I still prefer Norge. Home is where the heart is, after all. I do not think I could ever live here.'

Her head popped up as something clanging in the distance reached her ears. Ragnar chuckled at her reaction.

'The sound is coming from the place where those Christians worship. That is where their treasure and wealth is. After we enjoy this feast of fish, we shall raid their town.'

Ragnar kept true to his word. Once all the men and some women had finished eating, he led the way through a thicket of trees and a green field. The tall grass gave some coverage, as it was waist high. He listened to the direction the clanging came from and continued on. Sigrid withdrew her sword in her right hand and the green and yellow rounded shield attached to her other arm. A city wall loomed ahead of them. Sigrid could see the pointed steeples of the place of worship. The clanging noise sounded again, this time much quicker than the last…an alarm. They'd been spotted.

'Now?' Sigrid asked.

'Now, we attack.'

The Norsemen ran across the rest of the field, shouting their battle cries. The townsfolk screamed in panic and ran around all places, trying to get to safety. Many women – even children were cut down. Sigrid looked at her father.

'It is what we do. You know that, Sigrid.' Sigmund exclaimed, as two armed men attacked him.

He slaughtered them instantly, without hesitation, the corpses dropped to the ground. Sigrid fought her way and killed almost as many men as her father. She kicked down a door, hoping there would be something valuable in one of the homes. The woman looked terrified and covered her children.

'Hide,' Sigrid said. 'Give me whatever jewels and gold you have and hide. I will tell them you are dead. Do not leave this house.'

Shakily, the woman nodded. With trembling hands, she gave all the gold coins and ring she had on one of her fingers. After she did as Sigrid asked, the woman hid her children in a large closet of some sort. She thanked Sigrid and went into hiding herself.

Sigrid left the house and met with her father and Ragnar inside the church. The other men gathered the priests and monks to the center and stripped them.

'Where is the treasure, priest?' Sigmund asked the man who'd been wearing white.

'We have none!' the priest squeaked. 'It has been taking by our king as taxes!'

'You know, I think he may be lying. Search everywhere.' Ragnar exclaimed.

'This place is holy and must not be defiled! This is God's house!' the priest shouted, panicked.

'Then where is this God? Why is he not here with you?'

'H-he is always with us though we cannot see him.'

'Shut up, old man.' Sigmund exclaimed, hitting him with the butt of his sword.

Sigrid watched the spectacle before her. The younger boys around the priest all had their hands folded and prayed with necklaces made of wooden beads and a cross at the end. Soon enough, the search was complete and the men found treasure, hidden inside a table. Above resting on the table was a book – scribbling in it that Sigrid had not seen before. She flipped through the book, looking at the drawings and paintings.

'Please, do not touch the Lord's book!' a young man wearing a brown dress came up to her, his hand trembling as he held an iron fire stick in his hand. 'It is a holy book.'

He backed away as Sigrid looked at him. To Aedred the monk, she was a blonde haired demon who frightened him beyond belief. Her face and her hands were stained with crimson blood, stained with blood of the innocent she slaughtered. The woman advanced towards him and he backed away, his courage and strength fleeting. The young man tripped and fell backwards onto his bottom. Sigrid chuckled at his clumsiness and hauled him up as she came up to him.

His heart raced like a stampede of wild horses. He was certain she could hear it. Aedred winced at her iron grip as she lugged him towards his friends and the head priest. Just thinking of what this woman could do to him made him sick with fear. His face paled as he looked at her. She spoke to him, though he could hardly understand her. Some words he caught and was able to make out but not much. Aedred closed his eyes and prayed. God, help me! He whispered in his thoughts. The woman spoke to him again, causing him to look at her again.

'You do not speak Norse?' she asked, lowering her blood-soaked sword.

'No.'

She continued to examine him, giggling at him when she looked closer at his face.

'You are not a man, you're just a boy!'

At last she had released her hold of him. His shoulder was in pain as he fixed the sleeve and massaged the bruise.

'Please, do not hurt me – I beg of you. And I am not a boy…I am twenty four.'

'You're not a neither a man yet nor a boy – perhaps you are just in the middle. Why should I spare you?'

'Spare my life and I will be your servant – I will do whatever you wish.' Aedred pleaded.

Sigrid raised a quizzical brow at him. She had no reason to spare this young boy's life…though; she and her father had always wanted extra help around the house. The boy could be their slave, either way; she would have to consider her father and Ragnar's choices too. Without saying anything to the boy, she circled around the priest and his followers. She went to sit beside her father and Ragnar.

'You did well today, my shield maiden.' Sigmund congratulated.

'Thank you, Father.'

He patted her shoulder and kissed the side of her head.

'What are we going to do with these Christians, Father?' she asked.

'Use them for sport perhaps, why do you ask?'

'There is one I'd like to keep as a prize – as my slave.'

'Whatever you desire…it is yours, you have done well today, Sigrid.' Ragnar said, coming over to us. 'It is a share of your treasure then and whatever else you found on your first raid.'

'Thank you, Ragnar.'

She got up and returned to where she had placed her new slave. Sigrid smiled at him, though he knew it was not a pleasant one – she smiled over her victorious conquest. She kneeled down to look him directly into his eyes as she spoke.

'You are going to be my slave, prestur. You get to return with me and serve me and my father.'

It certainly was a better fate than being murdered in cold blood.

'What is your name, my lady?' he asked, his voice trembling.

'Sigrid, but you are not to call me anything except my lady. Do you understand, slave?'

'Yes.'

'Get up and clean our weapons.'

He obeyed instantly. The men around him laughed as he took the swords and axes into his arms. The steel swords were heavy and the priest nearly fell while holding them. This earned a round of laughter from their invaders.

'Kill the others.' Ragnar said, still chuckling.

The priest and his followers cried out as they were slaughtered. Their blood soon stained the marble floors of the church. Aedred was horrified at the sight before him, his friends – his fellow brothers in Christ had all been slaughtered whilst he lived. Why had he been spared? Why was God allowing him to be a slave for these heathens?

'Did you clean those weapons yet, prestur?' Sigrid asked.

'N-n-no, my lady, but I will go at once!'

'Go with him, Sigrid; make sure he does not run. If so, cut his feet off.' Sigmund said, glowering at the boy. 'What is your name, boy?'

'Aedred, sir,' he replied, his voice quivering.

'Come with me, þæll,' Sigrid took hold of his hood and dragged him along.

'What does that mean?'

'It means slave…you are my slave now, prestur.'

Aedred hesitated to ask how long he would be her slave. What if he was her slave until he died? Would he ever be free again? A small voice in the back of his thoughts whispered to him. Be patient. Be faithful. He glanced at Sigrid who sat down cross legged by the well.

Aedred drew a bucket of cool water from the well and pulled out a cleaning rag. He dipped the cloth into the water and began wiping and scrubbing the heavy swords of the Norsemen. He wanted to start a conversation with this woman but found himself too intimidated to do so.

'Er, do – do you have any brothers or sisters, my lady?' Aedred asked, hoping to break his nerves.

'Did I say you could speak?' Sigrid demanded, giving him a sharp look.

'Forgive me.'

His voice was quiet as he spoke to her. Sigrid continued to watch him as he cleaned the swords thoroughly. He had no hair but she could see his brows – if he were to have a head of hair it'd be golden – like hers.

'Why do you not have hair?' she asked, after several moments of a long silence.

The slave glanced her way, surprised that she was asking him the questions.

'It is tradition to rid ourselves of all worldly things when we commit ourselves to our Lord. He sustains us and gives us everything we need, my lady.'

Sigrid raised a brow at him.

'You are quite strange, þæll.'

'My name is Aedred, my lady.'

Sigrid grabbed hold of his brown garb and glowered at him. He dropped the sword and listened as it clattered on top of the other ones. His hands trembled as she held him captive.

'You are my slave…you are a slave with no name. I will continue to address you as such until I see fit you deserve a name to be called by.' Sigrid hissed. 'Do you understand?'

Aedred nodded. To the Norsemen, he would be nameless from now on – but God knew him. He had a name and was called on by God to do His work while Aedred was still breathing and walking this earth. Sigrid could almost smell the fear radiating off this pathetic boy…it was also quite strange how dominating she was despite the fact he was older than her. She loosened her hold on Aedred and forced him back down to cleaning the weapons.

'I am an only child…my mother died before she could have any more children.' Sigrid said, playing with a rock in her hand. 'If you must know…but from now on you will not speak unless I allow you to speak.'

'Yes, my lady…' Aedred paused. 'I am sorry for your loss.'

He added the last sentence quietly though Sigrid could still hear him. When she glanced at him, he gave her a brief look of sympathy but went immediately back to cleaning the swords and axes. Not another word was spoken between the mistress and slave that evening. At sundown, the raiding party returned to their camp with Aedred and the treasure hoard they'd found.

'If there are any disturbances, wake me. You sleep here.' Sigrid said while pointing to a spot outside her tent.

'Disturbances?' Aedred asked.

'Yes, such as if your king sends men to attack our camp, also…'

She grabbed the rope around his midriff and began to untie it.

'What are you doing?' he exclaimed, horrified – as he thought she was going to strip him bare in front of her.

'I am making it impossible for you to be a runaway.' Sigrid replied, forcing him down.

She bound his feet and his hands together. The rope burned against his wrists as she yanked it tightly around. Silently, he prayed – desperately praying for strength and protection against this young heathen woman. Once she finished, Sigrid got up and sighed.

'Good night, my lady.'

. . .

Something dreadfully cold sloshed around him – startling him awake. Aedred shot up, or tried to – but his hands and feet were bound. He was suddenly extremely cold and wet. Aedred looked up at the one who'd soaked him. The blonde haired Norse demon, Sigrid, had a bucket in her hand and was glowering at him. She looked almost like a wolf, ravenous and fierce.

'You were supposed to stay awake to keep watch, you idiotic pest!' Sigrid shouted at him.

He was certain she'd end his life that moment. She pulled out a dagger from her leather belt strapped along her torso and went on her knees – only inches away from Aedred. He backed away as best he could but she caught him by the rope on his hands and yanked him back.

'Please, f-f-forgive me, I did not mean to sleep.' Aedred exclaimed, his voice quivering again.

'I'm not going to kill you, idiot, not yet anyway. You still have work to do. You are after all my slave. What would be the point in having a slave if I were to kill you right away? Oh no, that would not be much fun at all.'

Aedred finally released the breath he'd been holding. Despite the fact she was smaller than him she was capable of hauling him up to his feet. She untied both of the ropes.

'What you are wearing is useless…you cannot do any sort of work in that dress.'

'It is not a dress, it is fashioned from a tunic—,'

'Shut up. Change into these.' Sigrid exclaimed, chucking clothes at him. 'You can use that tent – just to put these on.'

Aedred obeyed and stepped into the tent with his new clothes. They smelled quite horrid as he put them on – Sigrid perhaps got them off a dead man's body. It was strange to be wearing normal clothing again – since he'd been a monk for nearly ten years. He was brought to the monastery at ten; the only living relative he knew was his aunt who'd brought him there. On the journey there, she refused to tell him anything about who his mother and father were. She had silenced him by calling him out as a bastard and there was nothing he could do to change that.

Only God could forgive him for his state. Whoever his mother or father was – they were quite rich since they paid for silence and the entire trek to Wessex – likewise they had paid for his schooling to become a monk, to avoid a secular life as his father and mother had. He thought of the woman who often came to see him as he lived with his aunt. Was it possible that the woman had been his mother? His aunt and the young woman never said otherwise. He had no notion of who his father had been. Aedred never dared to ask his aunt who had fathered him.

'Are you finished yet, prestur?' Sigrid exclaimed, snapping his attention back to the present.

'Yes.'

He'd finally finished and stepped out of the tent. Sigrid was quite surprised that he had any build to his body underneath that dress he'd been wearing. He was quite lean – now he actually looked taller than her.

'Not bad…for a slave,' Sigrid commented. 'Since you cleaned the weapons yesterday, you can sharpen them today.'

'Do you have a whetstone?'

'What?'

'Something to sharpen the swords with,' Aedred replied.

Sigrid found him a decent size rock and handed it to him, practically slamming it into his palm.

'There is your whetstone, slave.' Sigrid said, with a grin. 'Now, get to work.'

'Yes, my lady.'

She led him to where the weapons were and as he sat down, she tied his feet again.

'I won't run, my lady.'

'I am making sure you do not.' Sigrid said.

Aedred sighed before beginning his work. Some of the blades were a little dull – only because they'd been used so often in fighting. However they were strong, fine blades – twice the swords the English had, far more sturdy. Near the hilt of the sword were Nordic runes – what it said Aedred did not know.

'What does this rune say?' Aedred asked.

'Ulfbert – he is a craftsman…one of the best blacksmiths in Scandinavia. He has made every last one of these swords.' Sigrid answered, examining her own.

Sigrid thought of her mother as she looked down at her sword – the same one her mother used. Long before Sigrid was able to hold a sword, her father wrapped around her mother's wedding band around the hilt with a leather string. It helped remind her that her mother was still with her, watching over her. There was a rune 'A' and an S embedded into the silver band – for Audhild and Sigmund. Perhaps one day if she ever considered marrying, she would have the same done for her.

As Aedred worked, he glanced at Sigrid – her expression had changed. She was calm as she studied her sword. He could see the silver band wrapped around the hilt.

'Am I permitted to speak, my lady?' Aedred inquired.

'This once,' replied she.

'Is that your ring on the hilt?'

'No. It was my mother's. When I started my training, my father gave me her sword as a gift. I would not part with this sword for the world. These are the only things I have of my mother.'

'Did you know your mother at all?'

Sigrid shrugged.

'She died when I was seven – I remember her face, or I try to. The older I get the less I am able to remember her. She's fading from my memories.'

She spoke softly as she thought of her mother. As she looked over at Aedred, all emotion faded from her. She had a face made of stone again.

'I never knew my mother or father…only my aunt.'

'Did you always live that that place?'

'The monastery…I was brought there when I was ten. It was much more of a home than living with my aunt.'

'Can't imagine why,' Sigrid remarked, with a snort.

'God has been good to me, my lady. He has given me much. And I have much to be thankful for.'

'There is more than one god – how else do we get everything we need? Thor brings protection to us Midgardians…Tyr gives us strength for war and the laws we must abide by. Freya and Freyr teach us to love and give us wisdom of the old. But Odin is our great father – of the gods and he gave us life as well as Frigga – the mother of all.'

Aedred was puzzled by all the gods the Norse people worshiped. Was it not simpler to worship one God – the true god who did all those things and so much more?

'How can one god do all those things? Tell me that, slave.' Sigrid hissed out of her teeth.

'With God all things are possible.' Aedred answered, as he picked up a new sword to sharpen. 'My lady, would it not be simpler to believe that one God can do all things?'

Sigrid raised a brow – she was beyond irritated with this slave.

'You will do well to remember that Odin and the other gods will punish you for this. Where was your god when you were taken as a slave? Where was your god when we found your gold and treasures and killed your friends? He did not come to save you, did he?'

Aedred remained silent as she stared at him.

'He—,'

'Oh, shut up…just finish your work, þæll.'

He obeyed and averted his gaze from her. Had she not been so menacing and vicious, he would have though Sigrid beautiful. Certainly she was a fine young woman to look at – but she was power starved and had a thirst for blood. She was a fearsome woman to behold – even at arms' length. So Aedred continued his duty, which kept her at bay and certainly even tempered. They talked little – if Sigrid did, it was only to give him a new task to do around the campsite. The Norsemen camped for three more nights – half of them went on to raid another village and came back with more gold and this time food and livestock.

That evening Aedred sat in the cold. Sigrid and the others were settled comfortably around the fire pit they made – enjoying well seasoned meats and vegetables. One of the men played an instrument and the women sang. Aedred listened as Sigrid sang – her voice quite captivating.

Come, come gods of old

Bearing gifts of gold

Here, there place them where

Food, wine, joy and mirth

Come, come down to this earth

Thunder and war, tales long told

Come, come gods of old

Burning bright so fair

Flame of Tyr and Freyr

Wisdom, love and beauty fall

Come, come father of all

Come, come gods of old

Aedred looked away into the distance once she finished singing. Music continued to play but other songs were sung. He wished for a blanket or even to sit by the fire for a moment. Winters in England were bitter enough and it was soon here…he'd seen the flora change to bright reds, orange and yellows. Sigrid's laughter snapped him back to the present. He glanced her way and she met his gaze. Her face was glowing – almost radiant. She looked back at her companions and then stood up. She made her way towards Aedred and crouched down beside him. The warmth of the fire radiated off her. He longed to sit by the fire and warm himself.

'You are quiet this evening, þæll,' Sigrid whispered. 'Why not join us by the fire?'

She was mocking him and he knew it. He could clearly read her expression as she laughed at him.

'I am quite alright here, my lady.' Aedred replied, quietly. 'Thank you.'

'You are nearly frozen sitting here and that is all you can say?' she asked, scornfully.

She laughed and shook her head. Sigrid chucked a piece of stale bread at his feet. He ate it gratefully – not having eaten in three days. The last thing he'd eaten was a bowl of porridge the morning when Sigrid and her raiding party attacked them. It was awfully stale and made his throat dry but it filled his stomach nonetheless. Sigrid yanked him up onto his feet.

'Come on.'

Sigrid was irritated with him but she allowed him, that one night, to sit by the fire to warm himself.

. . .